From Argyrol to Art

Dr. Barnes' love for science ultimately helped him develop the fantastic art collection we can all enjoy today.


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The Barnes Foundation in Center City
2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway,Parkway,215-278-7000,

The Barnes has expanded from its original residence in Merion Pennsylvania, and found a brand new home in Center City Philadelphia. Now, with easy access to public transportation, countless crowds of people can take part in Albert C. Barnes’ quirky, yet sophisticated fine art collection. The collection showcases 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, and various works by Manet, Degas, Seurat, Prendergrast, Picasso, and many more. In addition to 800 paintings the foundation possesses over 1,700 high quality articles from all over the world, the worth of which, is an estimated 25 billion dollars.

The relocated Barnes stretches over four and a half acres of land right off of Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The new building features sustainable architectural elements, including a green roof, water preserving permeable surfaces, and the incorporation of vegetation through and around the property. New York City’s husband-and-wife architect duo, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, designed the institute to serve as a modernized mirror of the Merion Barnes. The architects have replicated essential elements of Paul Cret’s 1925 design scale, and configuration, while incorporating a fresh minimalist aesthetic to uphold the stylistic preferences of Albert C. Barnes.

Prior to the Philadelphia Barnes Foundation’s May 19, 2012 opening, many considered the move to disregard and misrepresent Albert C. Barnes intentions for his exceptional art collection. Albert C. Barnes was a rare combination of a man, taking an active interest in both art and chemistry.

Dr. Albert Coombs Barnes established the Barnes Foundation along with his wife Laura Leggett Barnes, in 1922. Barnes received his degree in Physiological Chemistry and Pharmaceutics from the University of Pennsylvania. Shortly after graduating, Barnes along with his partner Herman Hille, developed Argyrol, an antiseptic to treat gonorrhea, and prevent infantile blindness caused by the disease. Barnes started A. C. Barnes Company to sell Argyrol directly to physicians, the profit of which transformed Barnes from a working-class academic into an eccentric art-loving millionaire.

While pursuing his pharmaceutical ambitions, Barnes acquired an interest in modern art, reconnecting with an old classmate and painter, William Glackers, who introduced him to the works of European artists like Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Manet. Barnes traveled back and forth between the United States and Europe, collecting, and taking advice from experts like Leo and Gertrude Stein.

Barnes’ passion for the arts later translated into the 1922 founding of the Barnes Foundation, which focused on experimental education, branching Barnes’ background in chemistry with his love and adoration for the arts by providing lectures, and literature. Barnes published The Art in Painting, in 1925, an art criticism and aesthetic philosophy, which he described as “an experiment in the adaptation to plastic art of the principles of the scientific method.”

Today the Barnes foundation upholds the same sentiments towards educating and connecting the public with the arts. Despite the controversy, the gallery has received an overwhelmingly positive response from both the city and art enthusiasts alike. There is a level of integrity that the foundation has made a conscious effort to maintain and preserve. The Barnes foundation remains an advocate of the arts, promoting appreciation of the arts and horticultural science. The foundation seeks to preserve the Barnes families impeccable art collection, inviting broad audiences and interpretations, providing ongoing exhibits, education, and events that reflect multiple eras and cultures.

Amanda V. Wagner is a junior English Major at Drexel University and the student editor of the Cultural Passport. Follow Amanda on twitter at @amandavwagner

All images courtesy of The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. © 2012 The Barnes Foundation.

Pictured above: Room 18, north west view. © 2012 Tom Crane.

On the homepage: Room 23, west wall.